Reading the Gaelic landscape

John Stuart-Murray

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

How many people have looked at a map of the Highlands and been intrigued and yet felt excluded by the wealth of the place- names recorded? Most of people can neither understand nor pronounce the unfamiliar combinations of letters and syllables of the language. They might consult a Gaelic dictionary or Ordnance Survey’s comprehensive Guide to Gaelic origins of place names in Britain (Ordnance Survey 2005). en they are drawn into the extensive alphabetical glossaries provided. Little may remain for long in the memory. Perhaps they have no framework, which can organise this new Gaelic vocabulary. Perhaps short-term memory evaporates because there is little chance to apply and reinforce knowledge. ere are, after all, few opportunities to practise the language on the Highland mainland. Given the history of Gaelic, many native speakers are hesitant to converse with strangers, in what has sometimes become a private means of communication. Ordnance Survey (OS) maps may be the sole contact non-speakers have with the language.
This can happen when we use any one of the 46 of the 72 Scottish 1:50,000 scale OS Landranger maps, which together cover the area where Gaelic was spoken until the late nineteenth century, known as the Gàidhealtachd. On these sheets most place- names are recorded in a reasonably correct and contemporary spelling with a recognisable and fairly consistent grammar. They are easy to translate without recourse to complex research.
This paper aims to build a framework for organising such knowledge, which should help a better recall of Gaelic place- names. e reader will learn about diverse aspects of place and how these have been recorded, through a deeper understanding of a language specific to the landscape of the Scottish Highlands and unique in its perception of that landscape. Landscape becomes more legible through an appreciation of Gaelic place-names.
Name elements and qualifying adjectives, which are common to many features, are organised into types. Categories include: the physical, the biological, the visual and the cultural. Knowledge of other name types, like those associated with agriculture, settlement and history, will encourage a more connected understanding of Highland landscape and culture than what can be learned from place-name inventories alone. Categories also cover areas of specific interest to hill-walkers, sailors, anglers, botanists and ornithologists, which will enrich their understanding of the landscape and appreciation of place. Instead of merely denoting a place, the aim is to connote a name with its meaning in the context of the specific landscape to which it applies.
e paper will explore the following questions. Why are place- name distributions often uneven for no apparent geographical reason? What happens to place-names at the edge of their cultural range? Why is the Gaelic vocabulary of place so different to English or Scots? How can Gaelic generic place words be related to geographical terms? What kind of landscape do Gaelic names portray? What kind of plants and animals were present when the landscape was named? What might be the reasons why certain words are preferred in naming? When there are no exact translations, how can we understand meanings? How have poets and songwriters used place-names in the Highland landscape?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)205-314
Number of pages109
JournalTransactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness
Publication statusPublished - 2017

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • toponymy
  • landscape


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